DURHAM – NC IDEA is looking to boost entrepreneurship across North Carolina at its earliest stages with a new grant program.

Called “micro grants,” the program will offer awards between $1,000 and $10,000.

Set to launch this summer, the grants augment the $50,000 seed grant program that NC IDEA has been offering for more than a decade.

The grants target emerging startups that aren’t quite to level of development needed to secure a $50,000 award.

The grants “in the amount of $1K – $10K to young companies looking to validate and advance their idea; or if further along, validate scalability where a small amount of funding would make a significant impact. Grant recipients will also receive mentorship and assistance from NC IDEA, as well as access to its wide network of advisors, partners and investors,” the group said in the announcement.

“NC IDEA is seeking applications from NC-based startups with innovative products or business models with the potential of becoming a $5M company in 5-7 years. We are particularly interested in high-ambition startups and founders outside of our traditional software and hardware focus; and are also seeking companies existing in North Carolina’s rural and economically distressed counties.”

The economic development foundation recently announced the 25 semifinalists for its latest round of seed grants, which drew a record 185 applications and was the most geographically diverse field to date.

NC IDEA has now awarded more than $5 million to 126 startups through 24 rounds of awards since the program launched in 2006.

Funds are designed to help the startups evolve into commercially viable ventures.

NC IDEA also provides mentoring, use of MBA fellows, in-kind services from attorneys, accountants and marketing consultants.

WRAL TechWire caught up with NC IDEA Chief Executive Officer Thom Ruhe to talk about the new initiative.

  • What are the key reasons for launching this new program? A

We are testing new ways to help more aspiring entrepreneurs. The existing seed grant program ($50,000 grants) has precluded younger companies from participating because they couldn’t articulate ways to credibly deploy a large grant. With a smaller amount, we hope to help more people earlier in their journey.

  • What differences do you see in terms of development between startups that are qualified for the $50,000 grants and those that aren’t quite ready? A

We expect to see more specific requests for something particular – the purchase of a key piece of equipment, budget to travel to a conference, money to launch a website. These discrete activities would be intended to provide data to help confirm continuing the venture, or maybe pursuing something else.

  • How will criteria for the new grants differ from the seed grants?

These will be a little less strenuous on the information required to apply. We will focus more on the specific request, namely will it help you keep going, and less on a comprehensive and competitive landscape.

  • Are you targeting more early-stage firms such as those coming out of programs at the state’s universities?

Yes, this is precisely intended to help people developing earlier stage ideas. As such, we are expecting applications from our universities and hopefully from our rural communities and other under-resourced communities.